Letters from T S Eliot to Robert Waller discussing poetry, 1942


These letters between T S Eliot and the poet Robert Waller (1913–2005) show Eliot in his capacity as editor and board member at the publishers Faber and Faber. The first, on Faber and Faber notepaper, is dated 21 September 1942; the second, on the notepaper of the classical association, is dated 19 October 1942.

Who was Robert Waller?

As well as a poet, Robert Waller was an ‘ecological humanist’ who helped found The Ecologist magazine, worked for the BBC, and wrote a biography of the environmentalist George Stapledon (1882–1960) for Faber (1962). At the time of these letters, Waller was a private in the army. Eliot refers to this at the end of the 21 September 1942 letter:

I was much interested by your description of the camp and the life: these accounts of yours give me a more true impression of what this world you are imprisoned in is like, than any I have had from other sources.

Advice and criticism

These letters give us as much insight into Eliot’s thinking as they do into Waller’s work. In the first, Eliot explains the element of his job at Faber which involves reading new poetry:

It is not a simple question of my “liking” or not one poet’s work or another’s, and recommending it to my firm on that ground. I doubt whether I get very much pleasure from any modern poetry, either by my contemporaries or by my juniors. That does not imply a comparative rating in which I put my own work very high. It is simply that if one writes oneself, interest in poetry is largely a matter of what can be of use to oneself, and I do not believe that living poets can be of much use to each other. Or rather, I believe that they cannot gain very much by study of each other’s work.

Eliot specifically responds to Waller’s comment on poets such as Henry Treece, and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Indeed in the second letter, he tells Waller ‘I am certainly not altogether happy about all this Welsh poetry’.

More generally, Eliot is rather negative about the world of contemporary poetry, admitting that he has ‘had misgivings, in one direction or another, about everybody and about every tendency in the last twenty years’ and has ‘to go back to the dead to find poetry that I enjoy reading’. As regards his own position in this world, Eliot writes ‘My own influence, as far as I have had any, has been purely negative – in helping to put one kind of poetical jargon out of date’. In terms of concrete poetic advice, Eliot gives his opinions that ‘Poetry is made with words not with ideas, though it exploits ideas just as a poet exploits his private experiences + emotions’; and ‘Poetry requires careful choice, and using the maximum number of metaphors and images and giving each one the maximum effort’.

For more T S Eliot content explore works published by Faber & Faber.

Full title:
Thomas Sterns Eliot: letters from T. S. Eliot (b 1888, d 1965), poet, publisher and critic, to Robert Ferns Waller (b 1913, d 2005), poet, writer and radio producer; 1933-1952
21 September 1942 and 19 October 1942, Faber & Faber, 24 Russell Square, London
Manuscript / Typescript / Letter / Ephemera
T S Eliot
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